Dave Gallo wasn’t ordained to become a scientist. And yet youthful explorations of Lake Owasco led to a lifelong interest in the oceans, eventually bringing him face-to-face with the most storied maritime wreckage in modern history. With the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster occurring this month, Cape Cod Life spoke with Gallo about the virtues of a career spent looking beneath the surface.
Right out of high school, I sold shoes for seven years because my guidance counselors and teachers said I didn’t have the aptitude to be a scientist. And they were right (laughs). Science is a very rigorous, no-fooling-around world at the top level—you have to be really focused. I was born with ADD. Looking back at some of my report cards, I had these check marks: doesn’t work to ability, talks out of turn, disturbs others (laughs). I was a very poor student in elementary and high school, but I always had this curiosity about science, even though I wasn’t quite sure what a scientist did.
In the August 1976 issue of National Geographic, there was an article by Bob Ballard called “Window on the Earth’s Interior.” That was the first place I had ever heard the words Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Something about this article flipped a switch in me and got me curious again. Jeff Fox was a researcher at the State University of New York, which was pretty much across the parking lot from where I was selling shoes, and I took this article over to him. I would ask him something and he would say, “That’s a great question. We don’t know the answer.” That was awesome. I thought the world had been explored completely and that the last real explorers had died in the 1800s. What I was about to find is that most of the world remains unexplored.
In 1987, just as I was finishing my PhD, I got a letter from Bob Ballard asking if I would come to Woods Hole. Bob had found hydrothermal vents in the mid- to late-1970s. He had found Titanic in ’85, explored it in ’86, and he became larger than life. In 1987, I had just accepted a job at the University of Hawaii, which would have been great—my whole young scientific life would have been taken care of. But Bob said, “I don’t know if I can pay you tomorrow. I don’t know what we’ll be doing next month, next year, or the year after. But I can promise that whatever we do, it will be the first time anyone’s ever done it.”
I came here as Assistant Director of the Center for Marine Exploration. Bob Ballard was in the Deep Submergence Laboratory and had something called the Center for Marine Exploration. At the time, we were building robots—the first one was called JASON . . . We did the JASON project in 1989 and the idea was that we could put a robot at the bottom of the ocean and not only have a team on board the surface ship exploring, but through a satellite link, we could tie it into the whole world. That first year, I think we had half a million students following our expeditions in the Mediterranean as we explored ancient shipwrecks.
After I got here, Titanic was always in the background. I began using images from the Titanic in my presentations to the public—it’s easier to explain than eddy viscosity or worms that we find in hydrothermal vents. In 2001, I went out on an expedition with the Russians and the Mir submarines—they were taking tourists out to Titanic, and my job was just to give some lectures. The tradeoff was they allowed us to put cameras on board the subs to collect information about Titanic. I was at the site, but I didn’t dive. Then in 2010, I was asked if I would stand in as expedition leader. We were using brand-new tools—robots, new cameras—and I said sure I’d love to do it. That’s when it really got its hooks in me.
We took the REMUS robots out there along with (research specialist) Bill Lange’s newest cameras, and we were going to make a map. It was new technology, which meant the kinds of information brought back would never have been done before. We made a detailed map of a three-by-five-mile area, we honed into a one-by-one-and-a-half-mile area, then we honed in ever further onto a football-field-sized area.
The sonar picks it up before you get there. Then you see something that’s 50 yards away, then 30, then 20 as you slowly come up to it. The lights are peering out maybe 15 feet or so in front of the robot. Then suddenly, boom, there it is. The hull is this wall in front of you. I get goose bumps now just thinking about it.
The power of Titanic is that 1,500 people died that night, and you start to think of the individual stories—they’re out there for people to read. You look at the boat deck and that’s where people said their goodbyes to their loved ones and friends. It’s a powerful place. There were times inside that command center on board the ship when everyone would suddenly go quiet, and you knew that there was something emotional on the screen. It could be a personal belonging like a doll and you would wonder who that belonged to, who held it last. It could be the boat deck with a lifeboat just hanging there in the darkness of the deep.
The world’s oceans comprise 70 percent of the surface of the planet. When I first came here, we had explored four percent of the world’s oceans. Now we’re up to six or seven percent. And every time we go, we find something surprising. Very often, we find something startling. And on occasion, we find something revolutionary.
We’ve found the world’s greatest mountain range, the Mid-Ocean Ridge, which wraps around the earth like the seams on a baseball for 50,000 miles. Crisscrossing it, we’ve found thousands of valleys that are many, many times wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon. We’ve found the world’s tallest mountain peaks at the bottom of the ocean. We’ve found underwater lakes, underwater rivers, underwater waterfalls. In places where we’ve said there should be no life at all, we’ve found more life than a tropical rainforest. All of these things revolutionized the way we thought about what was going on in the world’s oceans, and that’s in the six or seven percent that we’ve explored. So you have to ask, what’s in the other 93 percent?
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